Stanford Law School’s website touts its “collegial culture” in which “collaboration and the open exchange of ideas are essential to life and learning.” Then there’s the culture I experienced when I visited Stanford last week....
When I arrived, the walls were festooned with posters denouncing me for crimes against women, gays, blacks and “trans people.” Plastered everywhere were photos of the students who had invited me and fliers declaring “You should be ASHAMED,” with the last word in large red capital letters and a horror-movie font. This didn’t seem “collegial.” Walking to the building where I would deliver my talk, I could hear loud chanting a good 50 yards away, reminiscent of a tent revival in its intensity. Some 100 students were massed outside the classroom as I entered, faces painted every color of the rainbow, waving signs and banners, jeering and stamping and howling. As I entered the classroom, one protester screamed: “We hope your daughters get raped!”
It was a big protest, generated by the real human beings the law school had assembled as its student body, not propaganda on the institution's website. It's real life, like the life experienced beyond the courthouse and beyond the law school, and it's not that polite. You know, it's also not polite to put "trans people" in quotation marks. It's a more polished form of incivility, but law students have long protested about the way law dresses up and glosses over injustice.
Of course, “We hope your daughters get raped!” is crude and ugly, but the right to defend one's own body has been taken away by the judges, and now, in America, a woman who has been raped may be forced to endure a pregnancy from that rape. In that context, “We hope your daughters get raped!” means: You might feel some empathy for us if it happened to someone close to you.
I had been warned a few days before about a possible protest. But Stanford administrators assured me they were “on top of it,” that Stanford’s policies permitted “protest but not disruption.” They weren’t “on top of it.”
Yes. The school failed him. Not only did the website promise collegiality, administrators, it seems, directly promised conditions that he relied on. You could parse their promise. What does it mean to be "on top of it"? What is "it"? They didn't say they would stop the protest. The students had a right to protest. The line was drawn at disruption, and where's the line between protest and disruption? Can we have a collegial debate about that? I'll bet we can't!
Before my talk started, the mob flooded the room. Banners unfurled. Signs brandished: “FED SUCK,” “Trans Lives Matter” (this one upside down), and others that can’t be quoted in a family newspaper. A nervous dog—literally, a canine—was in the front row, fur striped with paint....
Speaking of empathy... don't bring a dog into a noisy, chaotic scene. And don't paint your dog. I wonder what size and breed. It is dangerous to everyone to have a "nervous dog" in a place like that, and it's cruel to the dog.
When the Federalist Society president tried to introduce me, the heckling began.... Try delivering a speech while being jeered at every third word. This was an utter farce, a staged public shaming. I stopped, pleaded with the students to stop the stream of insults (which only made them louder), and asked if administrators were present.
Enter Tirien Steinbach, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion.
Ms. Steinbach and (I later learned) other administrators were watching from the periphery. She hadn’t introduced herself to me. She asked to address the students.
Something felt off. I asked her to tell the students their infantile behavior was inappropriate.
One could hardly expect the dean for diversity, equity and inclusion to take the judge's instruction and call the students babies. She had a lot of interests to mediate and an important, ongoing relationship with the students.
She insisted she wanted to talk to all of us. Students began screaming, and I reluctantly gave way. Whereupon Ms. Steinbach opened a folio, took out a printed sheaf of papers, and delivered a six-minute speech addressing the question: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
What could that mean?
It's impossible for Wall Street Journal readers to guess what that could mean. It's out of context. Metaphors look weird when you don't know what they refer to. Clearly, it's questioning whether some effort is worth what you get from it. It's not that weird.
While the students rhythmically snapped, Ms. Steinbach attempted to explain. My “work,” she said, “has caused harm.” It “feels abhorrent” and “literally denies the humanity of people.” My presence put Ms. Steinbach in a tough spot, she said, because her job “is to create a space of belonging for all people” at Stanford. She assured me I was “absolutely welcome in this space” because “me and many people in this administration do absolutely believe in free speech.”
I didn’t feel welcome—who would? And she repeated the cryptic question: “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
It's not that hard to understand, and you've deprived readers of the context. Steinbach's remarks made sense and dealt with the relationship between the speaker and the protesters that she needed to manage. She told him he was "absolutely welcome in this space," but he wants us to care about his feelings — he didn't feel welcome — but the students had their feelings too. Steinbach stood in a crossfire of feelings, and she did well enough.
I asked again what she meant, and she finally put the question plainly: Was my talk “worth the pain that this causes and the division that this causes?”
Again she asserted her belief in free speech before equivocating: “I understand why people feel like the harm is so great that we might need to reconsider those policies, and luckily, they’re in a school where they can learn the advocacy skills to advocate for those changes.”
That is, Steinbach acknowledged that there are different legal positions that are taken about free speech and this, too, is a subject for debate in law school. That is certainly true. Free speech rights could be lost if people don't believe in their value. It's not that difficult to articulate the arguments for limitations on free speech. Those of us who care about free speech rights need to be vigilant. They've been under attack for centuries, and they are under attack right now, from people, like those students, who would characterize some spoken words as a physical injury.
Then she turned the floor back over to me, while hoping I could “learn too” and “listen through your partisan lens, the hyperpolitical lens.”
That sentence needs editing to put "hoping" closer to "she," but you can figure it out. She told him that she hoped he could not just talk to the students and teach them but listen to them and learn from them. She accused him of being political — hyperpolitical.
In closing, she said: “I look out and I don’t ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ I look out and I say, ‘I’m glad this is going on here.’ ”
She was suggesting that protesting be seen in a positive light. Perhaps somehow the judge could have taken a lighthearted tone — I love protests! I was a student protester myself and I know how it feels to be righteously angry, etc. etc. — and connected it back to the things he came prepared to say. There was a path in that direction, but it was a road not taken.
This is on video, and the entire event is on audio, in case you’re wondering....
I've heard the audio. The judge becomes impassioned, and he expresses a good amount of hostility toward the students. As a law professor (retired), I can't imagine openly expressing hostility toward students who were aiming hostility at me. I lock into professor mode, mostly because I believe I have a duty to care for the students but also because I think a dispassionate, professional demeanor is more effective — especially when your interlocutors are highly emotional. Set the right example, and maybe they will meet you where you can coexist in something approaching conversation.
Two days later, Jenny Martinez and Marc Tessier-Lavinge, respectively the law school’s dean and the university’s president, formally apologized, confirming that protesters and administrators had violated Stanford policy. I’m grateful and I accepted.
The matter hasn’t dropped, though. This week, nearly one-third of Stanford law students continued the protest—donning masks, wearing black, and forming a “human corridor” inside the school... protesting Ms. Martinez for having apologized to me....
I don't think it was right to apologize for what Steinbach did. And I think the students had the right to protest. If they crossed the line into disruption, Martinez (and Tessier-Lavinge) should specify exactly where that happened. And they ought to apologize for the institution's failure to do enough to prevent the disruption or to deal with it quickly.
The protesters showed not the foggiest grasp of the basic concepts of legal discourse: That one must meet reason with reason, not power. That jeering contempt is the opposite of persuasion.
I don't think the students needed to limit themselves to "legal discourse." This wasn't the courtroom or the classroom. They were protesting, going outside of the "legal discourse" that the judge would have preferred. Protesting is an old tradition, and it's important, though sometimes rude and ugly. The students seem to have thought — with some reason — that judges like Duncan deserve to be made to feel ashamed of themselves and they went into the familiar theatrical protest style we Americans have loved and hated for so many years.
That the law protects the speaker from the mob, not the mob from the speaker.
He keeps calling students "the mob." Where's the love? These are our young people. They did not commit violence or threaten imminent violence, so there was no occasion to protect him, as First Amendment law is traditionally understood. There's no First Amendment right not to be heckled! And calling the speaks "the mob" doesn't take away their rights.
Worst of all, Ms. Steinbach’s remarks made clear she is proud that Stanford students are being taught this is the way law should be.
She wanted the students to know that the First Amendment — which Stanford, though private, is bound to follow — is subject to interpretation and they may apply their legal skills to working to develop strong exceptions to free speech. Ironically, Duncan is arguing for a strong exception to free speech if he means to say that the students may not shout him down.
I have been criticized in the media for getting angry at the protesters. It’s true I called them “appalling idiots,” “bullies” and “hypocrites.” They are, and I won’t apologize for saying so. Sometimes anger is the proper response to vicious behavior.
All right, then. He stands by his angry expressions. As I said, I would not, as a law professor, talk to students that way. But he wants the freedom to lean into anger. That puts him on the same page with them. Whatever happened to "the foggiest grasp of the basic concepts of legal discourse."
There's a lot of fog here!